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BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata in A Major, “Kreutzer”; Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Major – James Ehnes, v./ Andrew Armstrong, p. – Onyx

Two of Beethoven’s sonatas in A Major provide excitement and inventive poetry, played brilliantly by Ehnes and Armstrong. 

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 47 “Kreutzer”; Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 30, No. 1 – James Ehnes, v./ Andrew Armstrong, p. – Onyx 4170, 61:57 (3/24/17) [Distr. by HM/PIAS] ****:

Recorded 15 January 2016 (A Major Sonata) and 7-8 December 2015 (“Kreutzer”), these two Beethoven sonatas proffer distinctly polar temperaments in the Bonn master – the 1802 A Major cast in a sunny, lyrically tender sensibility, while the 1803 Kreutzer has come to instantiate the turbulent, fiery nature of consummate passion. Ehnes opens with the “Kreutzer” Sonata, whose first measures indeed correspond to A Major but whose subsequent evolution well incorporates a minor. Beethoven conceded that the broad emotional canvas of the piece embraced the scope of a concerto, with three movements that occupy their own raison d’etre. Ehnes and his collaborator Armstrong each provide a balanced fury to the proceedings, which begin with Ehnes’ solo in multiple stops, Adagio sostenuto.  The Presto carries both players forward with a sweeping gesture initiated by a small interval, E-F. True, an chorale-like episode in E Major (echoed in e minor) appears, dolce, to relieve the unabashed fury of the movement, but the imperious thrust of the music carries us to the emphatic coda.

Beyond the fire that Ehnes brings to the first movement, he has accorded the second movement, an F Major Adagio and variations, a sincere intimacy and graciousness, a true partnership with the piano in terms of thematic articulation and fluency. The eventual modulation to the tonic minor evokes a marvelous legato from both players.  The sheer scope of the movement makes us wonder if the outer motions of emotional turmoil or frenzied dancing in the manner of a galloping tarantella last movement mean to highlight the meditative repose Beethoven can generate in the midst of unrelenting momentum. Armstrong’s potent chord in the Presto sets off the semitone interval that had dominated movement one, now in a rush of A Major exuberance.  The series of motions enter a phase of 2/4, in relative restraint, before the initial dance resumes with buoyant fervor. Like Haydn, Beethoven combines a rondo and sonata-form structure, developing his (gypsy) ideas in fluid continuity, with sparkling runs and insistent bass chord in the keyboard.

We know that the thematic connection to the 1802 A Major Sonata, Op. 30, No. 1 lies in the fact that its last movement had been intended originally for the Kreutzer Sonata. The opening movement, however, a lyrical Allegro in ¾, alternates triplets and syncopations between the instruments, figures which Ehnes and Armstrong execute with subtlety and rhythmic nuance. Occasionally, Armstrong’s light triplets and roulades assume the character of a music-box. The close intimacy of the movement has acquired a palpable salon ethos, intimate, warm, and emotionally direct.  Marked Adagio molto espesssivo, the second movement (in D Major) presents a genial rondo interrupted by two episodes. Besides a dark hue of the (relative) minor key in the second episode, Beethoven inserts a keyboard cadenza into the mix, later followed by a cadenza for both players. The broadening of the theme aligns the majesty of the occasion to forecast the noble melodies that dominate much of Beethoven’s “second” period of development, beginning around the Third Piano Concerto. The movement Beethoven substituted for his Kreutzer offers a theme and variations in a genial spirit. The writing, nevertheless, becomes considerably virtuosic in variants three and four, first as a keyboard perpetual motion and then double- and triple-stopping for Ehnes’ instrument. The tricky move to duple meter seems to beckon to Schubert to follow its example.  The dark variation in a minor and its passing dissonances likely made good bedtime reading for the young Bartok. Some of the piano figurations will appear later in Beethoven, namely in his Op. 70, No. 2 Piano Trio. The last variation rather caps off Beethoven’s homage to predecessors Mozart and Haydn, with so-called “Scotch snaps” and a 6/8 burst to a sunny coda that Ehnes and Armstrong deliver with relish.

—Gary Lemco

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